We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)
Bottom Line: The intriguing premise, excellent script, and superb performances prove that sci fi films do not necessarily need sfx-overload to succeed.
Would you believe me if I told you there is an excellent science fiction, nay speculative Fiction, movie out there with absolutely no special effects and which involves nothing more than people sitting around and talking? Well I’m telling you it’s true, and The Man from Earth is that movie.
The script for this film came from the late Jerome Bixby who dictated its final pages from his deathbed to his son Emerson Bixby. Some may recognize Jerome Bixby as a science fiction writer who penned many short stories in the genre and who also wrote several Star Trek: TOS episodes (“Requiem for Methuselah”, “Day of the Dove”, “By Any Other Name”, “Mirror, Mirror”), had one of his short stories adapted into the infamous “It’s a Good Life” Twilight Zone episode, and who co-wrote the story for The Fantastic Voyage. Thus, this movie has some pedigree from a veteran of the genre who knew how to write Science Fiction in the days when writers could not always rely on special effects to carry the story.
The premise for The Man from Earth is simple: a university professor, John Oldman, is departing from his job and he gathers several of his most trusted colleagues to tell them that he has lived since the days of Cro-Magnon man, 14,000 years past. Some are intrigued by his claim while others find it ludicrous, and the movie documents their conversations—and knock-down, drag-out arguments—over one night’s time. That’s it. No monsters, aliens, space travel, time machines, explosions, or any of the other standards that you would expect from a science fiction movie. Just talking and the back-and-forth exchange of ideas, theories, and speculations.
Sound like a snooze fest? That’s exactly what it’s not. The movie grabs you almost right away with its intriguing premise and draws you in, even though you may be skeptical about at first. And that’s exactly the way the other characters in the movie feel, and they help propel the action forward as they mirror the viewer’s inner conflicts over John Oldman’s claims that he has lived over fourteen millennia.
The top-notch cast aids in keeping the movie lively as well. There are several faces among the actors that should be familiar to science fiction and fantasy fans including William Katt (Ralph Hinkley from The Greatest American Hero), John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox from Star Trek: Enterprise), Tony Todd (a slew of supporting and guest appearances in movies and television, particularly in the Star Trek revivals), and Richard Riehle (also a frequent guest star, especially across several of the Star Trek shows, as well as Tom Smykowski from Office Space). The other characters at first go along with John’s “what-if” scenario because they believe they are indulging him as he works out the concept of a potential novel. As the night progresses, some start to become more invested in his assertion while others get impatient with his line of reasoning. Then, the movie throw’s us a curve (WARNING!!! Minor spoilers to follow).
After some questioning, John reveals that he was an important person from history, and his revelation and its implications turn this into a completely different movie. The Man from Earth starts out as a “what-if” discourse on the implications of a person who has lived through all of human history. The revelation, however, makes us rethink the past and perhaps even our very core beliefs. This curve ball is a bit jarring and may turn some viewers off from the movie. I have to admit that I had some difficulty digesting it at first. But the more I thought about it, this turn of events really raised the movie to the next level and caused it to resonate with me for several days and ponder its implications. And you can’t ask much more than that from a movie in the science fiction genre, or any genre for that matter.
This movie succeeds primarily with the ideas it puts forth which cause the viewer to think long and hard about their perception of history. And it does this by way of an excellent script and a superb cast, and without a special effects crew in site. Sure, there are plenty of blockbusters that will be assaulting the theaters in the coming months and especially this Summer season, and we will all go and enjoy the escapist entertainment they provide, exploding on the screens with the latest special effects technology. But if you want an excellent science fiction movie that lives and dies by its story, script, and actors then be sure to track down The Man from Earth on video after you return from the theater.
Note: A sequel to this film titled The Man from Earth: Holocene came out last year written by Emerson Bixby and also starring David Lee Smith in the lead role. I have not had a chance to catch that yet.
The Man from Earth is available for streaming with Amazon Prime, and it is also on Blu-ray and DVD: